Common Core: Institution, implementation, and assessment
“In the implementation stage, the project confronts the reality of its institutional setting.” – Paul Berman and Edward W. Pauly, RAND (1975)
In recent months, the Common Core has faced a cascade of criticism that has permeated into Ohio’s statehouse and media. But while the fight to preserve or rescind the Common Core has been waged in the public square, frontline educators are not resting on their laurels as politicos bicker. Rather, many educators are implementing these new, rigorous academic standards in English and math with all due haste.
To learn more about the school-level implementation of the Common Core, I recently caught up with John Dues, the School Director of Columbus Collegiate Academy-Main St. Campus (CCA). Dues is a Teach for America alum who is in his fifth year as CCA’s instructional leader. A grade 6-8 middle school, CCA is part of the Excellent School Network (ESN) and is a Fordham-sponsored charter school. A high-performing school located on the rough-and-tumble east side of the Columbus, it enrolls 235 students, of which 92 percent are economically disadvantaged and 91 percent are black or Hispanic.
During my visit with Dues, I asked a number of questions about his experience implementing the Common Core. What are the everyday realities of executing these new standards within his institutional context? Is it an uphill battle? Business as usual? A wholesale reboot of school and classroom practices? And what obstacles lie ahead?
These are my five takeaways from our hour-long conversation:
1.) The assessments aligned to the Common Core will influence curriculum and instruction. The assessment, and not the standards, is what educators use to set the rigor level of lessons. As such, to use Dues’ phrase, CCA “flies in the dark” as an assessment that aligns to the Common Core is still being developed. How so? CCA employs a “backwards” strategy to develop curricula, whereby the starting-block of curriculum design is actually the assessment. Then, based on what the assessment ask students to master, CCA’s educators—teachers and school leaders working together—develop the school’s plan for the year (“curriculum”). The curriculum, in turn, guides teachers’ pacing and lesson plans over the course of a year. Without an assessment, CCA’s curriculum, all the way down to lesson plans, will remain a work in progress.
2.) The higher standards of the Common Core are “rigorizing” teacher development and lesson plans. CCA has been making classroom instruction more rigorous. (For a solid discussion about “rigor,” click here.) During the last summer break, for example, CCA’s teachers and school leaders re-aligned their teacher training manual and practices to meet the higher expectations of the Common Core. Moreover, during this time, the school reviewed lesson plan objectives and beefed up those objectives that were felt to lack rigor.
3.) Textbook changes are not necessarily part and parcel of Common Core implementation. To my surprise, CCA doesn’t issue textbooks to its students, except in 8th grade Algebra. Instead, teachers develop homegrown packets of learning material—to my eye, impressive pieces of work that, according to Dues, take up to 3 hours each to create. For schools that develop material locally such as CCA, the cost of purchasing new “Common Core Editions” of textbooks could be minimal.
4.) Common Core can encourage sharing of curricula and lesson plans from successful schools in other states. Recently, CCA educators visited Uncommon Schools—a high-performing charter school network—in New York state to learn how they’ve raised the rigor of their curricula and lessons to match the expectations of the Common Core. (Note, in spring 2013 New York administered as its high-stakes exam, an assessment that approximated the rigor of the Common Core. Ohio has not taken an intermediary step to prepare its schools, assessment-wise, for new exams.)
5.) Lower test scores are a concern when PARCC arrives in spring 2015. Dues remarked that CCA expects “proficiency” rates—the percentage of students who “pass” the exam—to fall when Ohio administers the PARCC exams. This may create a quandary when discussing test results with parents and other stakeholders. His school—along with all schools in Ohio—must convey that test results are lower, not because the students have become less smart overnight. Rather, under the Common Core, the expectation of what constitutes “passing” an exam has been substantially raised.
In my view, the institutional setting of CCA appeared receptive to the Common Core standards. High academic expectations aren’t anything new for CCA, as its mission is to prepare students to excel in a challenging high school environment and to put them on track for college success. Hence, the hand-wringing regarding the higher standards is minimal, and implementing the Common Core seems to be relatively business-as-usual.
Despite the strong alignment between institution (CCA) and project (Common Core), the assessments clearly remain problematic. The absence of the PARCC assessment hampers educators’ ability to fully align curriculum, lesson plans, and teacher training with the Common Core. And, the administration of PARCC is fraught with logistical concerns. How will the longer and meatier assessments impact the school’s schedule? What about the online administration—how much of the exam will assess a students’ ability to “drag and drop” items on a computer? (See here for prototype questions.) And how does the school help parents understand lower test scores under PARRC?
The bottom-line: the implementation of the Common Core remains very much a work-in-progress, even for a school that lives and breathes high standards.
 Ohio has five achievement levels: From lowest to highest, they are limited, basic, proficient, accelerated, and advanced. Dues said that his school expects only students presently in the “accelerated” and “advanced” achievement bands to be “proficient” under PARCC. We too expect “proficiency” to drop under the PARCC exams, in the same way as Dues. See our 2012 Stalled Start report.